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Before you forward that e-mail, check it out

Web site helps sift fact from fiction in forwarded e-mails. No, Bill Gates is not going to send you money.

By Teresa Mears Apr 7, 2010 1:17PM

Be warned that if you ever send me a forwarded e-mail warning me of dire consequences (hypodermic needles at gas pumps, assailants in the back seat of my car, cell phone numbers being given to telemarketers), I will send you back the words “another urban legend” with the link to the debunking of the tale at


I am always amazed that otherwise intelligent people actually believe this stuff. I guess that’s why popular scams, such as the Nigerian letter scam, remain persistent. Here’s my first piece of advice: If information comes to you in a forwarded e-mail, there is a good chance it’s not true.


And, of course, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


For 14 years, David and Barbara Mikkelson of California have been researching -- and debunking -- widely circulated misinformation for


“Rumors are a great source of comfort for people,” Barbara Mikkelson told The New York Times, which interviewed the couple about their work.

The couple started the site in 1996 as an online encyclopedia of myths and urban legends, The Times reported, debunking classic folk tales, such as the story of the killer with a prosthetic hook who stalked Lovers’ Lane. (We used to tell this one at slumber parties.)


After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the couple were inundated with requests to investigate various related claims and less than a year later, the Mikkelsons made Snopes their full-time job. They have two full-time employees and they make their money from advertising on the site sold by a third-party network, The Times reported.

The Times article focused on the site’s political research but we were more interested in financial urban legends and scams. Here are some of the financial topics in what Snopes calls the current 25 hottest urban legends:

  • Cell phone users must register their number with the national “Do Not Call” directory by a certain deadline to prevent their numbers from being released to telemarketers. We find it astonishing that there is anyone left in America who hasn’t yet received this forwarded message and discovered it was bogus, but it is still the hottest urban legend.
  • Eggs or popcorn kernels can be cooked by placing them between activated cell phones. This certainly would be useful in a power failure but it is, again, not true.
  • Internet users can receive cash from Microsoft, AOL, Intel or another entity for forwarding messages. This one is almost as old as the Internet itself, but there seem to still be some people who believe it. Anyone remember chain letters?
  • Here’s one that’s true: Identify thieves call people and extract personal details by telling them they have failed to report for jury duty and that warrants are being issued for their arrest.

It is also true that there is a password-stealing Facebook virus going around, as well as a virus that circulates in messages claiming you’ve received an e-mail postcard or greeting card, though the rest of the message warning of that virus may not be accurate.


By the way, the latest trick of e-mail forwarders is to claim that the story has been confirmed by Snopes. However, if you check it out, you often find that’s not so.


You can also check out information that seems too good to be true at Clark Howard’s Web site, Scam Busters and a site called Truth or Fiction.


Do you ever forward e-mails? What steps do you take to verify the information before you pass it on?


What’s your favorite urban legend or scam that you can’t believe people still fall for?


Related reading:

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